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Have you never been soft rock?

by Steve McClure

All sorts of great music is coming out of Japan these days, as any true J-pop fan knows. And some of the most interesting stuff is the music that can be included under the rubric “soft rock.”

In North America, soft rock refers to the music of early ’70s masters of mellow such as the Eagles and Jackson Brown, but here in Japan, it means the pop-rock hybrid associated with producers Curt Boettcher and Roger Nichols as well as groups like the Association and the Millennium. When the introduction of multitrack recording in the mid-’60s made it possible for even the most technically incompetent rock groups to make records, Boettcher, Nichols et al. continued to uphold the virtues of melody and harmony in concise, beautifully arranged pop singles that contrasted with hard rock’s self-indulgent Sturm und Drang.

With the late-’80s reissue by Pony Canyon of Nichols’ classic album “Small Circle of Friends,” the seeds were sown for Japan’s soft-rock movement. Under the tutelage of sensei such as Tatsuro Yamashita and his then-manager, Yoshiro Nagato, musicians eager to find a new stylistic template began to get heavily into the soft-rock vibe, and now bands such as the Great 3 and performers such as Kahimi Karie are making brilliant, homegrown soft rock.

There is an obvious overlap with the “Shibuya-kei” movement of several years back, but soft rock is a little less fey and not nearly so fashion-obsessed. You need only compare quintessential Shibuya-kei act Pizzicato Five — a classic case of style over substance — with a real band like the Cymbals. Stylistically more diverse than the Shibuya crowd, the one thing Japan’s soft-rockers have in common is a deep respect and appreciation for tight, bright, clever songs.

The problem is that major labels often don’t have a clear idea of how to promote soft-rock acts. Advantage Lucy is a case in point. After starting out on an indie label as Lucy van Pelt (the band changed its name after finding out it infringed on the trademarked Peanuts character’s name), Advantage Lucy was signed to Toshiba-EMI. But that label, which has proven so adept at marketing artists such as Utada Hikaru, Hitomi Yaida and even the quirky Ringo Sheena, apparently didn’t know what to do with Advantage Lucy. Its CDs didn’t sell well, and now the band is back on an indie label, Solaris Records.

Advantage Lucy’s two recently released mini-albums, “Oolt Cloud” and “Anzu no Kisetsu (Season of Apricots)” are full of sparkling pop gems, with vocalist Aiko’s crystalline, childlike voice floating over Yoshiharu Ishizaka’s shimmering guitars.

Similarly, Sony couldn’t quite figure out how to promote female vocalist Chocolat (who, by the way, is married to Akito Katayose of the Great 3). On her most recent album, “Hamster,” Chocolat worked with some of the brightest talents on the Japanese music scene to produce a soft-rock classic. Chocolat’s voice, on first listen, could unfairly be dismissed as lightweight, but that’s precisely the source of her charm. The stylistic range on “Hamster” extends from the dark, ambient feel created by producer Yoshinori Sunahara on Chocolat’s cover of Janis Ian’s “At Seventeen” to the impossibly happy and upbeat “Baseball and Elvis Presley,” produced by and co-written by Tomoki Kanda.

But Sony dropped Chocolat from its roster, and now she’s signed to Warner Music Japan. Her first single on that label, “Roller Girl,” is set to be released Aug. 4 and is being produced by Andy Chase, who also produces French popsters Tahiti 80. Let’s hope WMJ can give Chocolat the promo oomph she deserves.

Clammbon vocalist Ikuko Harada

One encouraging sign is that Warner has done a pretty good job of promoting soft-rock band Clammbon, whose most recent single, “Surround,” comes out today. The band’s albums sell an average of 50,000 copies, and its bright, infectious pop is accessible without being overly commercial. Vocalist Ikuko Harada sounds eerily like Akiko Yano, which, depending on your taste, is either a good thing or a bad thing.

Veering slightly closer to the rock end of the soft-rock spectrum are the Cymbals, just one of the many very cool acts associated with Tokyo’s living, dining & kitchen records. Its most recent album, “Mr. Noone Special,” is firmly in the tradition of mid-’60s power pop: bright, punchy rhythm guitar (a minimum of solos), hook-laden songs and the deft, light touch that characterizes pop music at its best. Like Katayose, Ishizaka and other Japanese soft-rock luminaries, Cymbals leader Reiiji Oki is obviously a pop otaku (usually translated as “nerd,” but I would prefer something like “inspired obsessive”), who wears his musical influences on his sleeve. The Cymbals’ new mini-album, “Respects,” includes covers of songs by the Kinks, the Who and the Monkees.

Another key player in Japan’s soft-rock movement is Dreamsville Records, which started out a couple of years ago specializing in reissues but which is now releasing stuff by Japanese soft-rockers such as the band Instant Cytron (the label also manages Clingon, a band that’s signed to Toshiba-EMI).

The incredible amount of talent to be found on Japan’s soft-rock scene proves that once you get past the obvious dreck like Morning Musume and SMAP, there is a hell of a lot of good music being made in this country. Do yourself a favor and give it a listen.